The art traditions of Oceania have long been highly renowned. They have fascinated generations of museum visitors, artists, art historians, and anthropologists. While the profound influence of Pacific art on European modernists has often been noted, in recent decades the great historic art practices of the region have also been vital to cultural renaissance, and much debate about culture, tradition and identity, across the Pacific itself. Over the same period, ways of thinking about indigenous art have changed dramatically, not least because Pacific artists, curators and scholars are now prominently involved in the debate. While new issues have been raised on many fronts, there is, most importantly, a deep awareness of how indigenous art practices have been shaped by history.
Interest in the Pacific and in Pacific arts has burgeoned in recent years, but there is no major publication that in any way captures an up-to-date understanding of the field. While survey books have continued to appear, the model of an area-by-area presentation of major art styles had not changed. A canon of traditional tribal art was taken for granted; emphasis was placed upon primarily male art forms such as ritual sculpture. Genres associated with women such as barkcloth and other fibre and fabric forms were neglected; art practices stimulated by colonial contact were considered of marginal interest; and contemporary art was excluded altogether. While primitivism has long been a canonical topic in histories of modernist art, while Oceanic material looms large among the modernists’ stimuli, and while issues around cultural appropriation have been much debated, studies of Pacific art practices have somehow been pursued in ethnographic isolation, neglecting not least the sense in which mainstream anthropology has engaged increasingly with cultural exchange and colonial history.
This project, supported by the Marsden Fund in New Zealand, works toward a fresh account of the field. The book in progress has considerable ambitions, aspiring to reconceptualize Pacific art as a historically formed range of traditions. It will take for granted that ‘history’ means much more than European influence – locally-generated change was often as, or more important. It will take on the challenge of seeing ‘history’ in local terms – what counts as an event or an epoch needs to be interpreted in relation to varied indigenous understandings of time, change, innovation, and continuity. Art in Oceania will range from the beginnings of human settlement in the Pacific to contemporary experiments in fashion and new media. It will foreground the indigenous traditions and art practices of the Oceanic region but offer fresh perspectives on the European imagining of the Pacific, and on western artists’ dealings with Oceanic environments and stimuli, from the voyages of Captain Cook through Gauguin, Nolde, Matisse and beyond.
The project team consists of Peter Brunt (Victoria University, New Zealand), Sean Mallon (Te Papa/Museum of New Zealand), Deidre Brown (Auckland University), Lissant Bolton (British Museum), Susanne Kuechler (University College London), and Nicholas Thomas (MAA).
Principle Investigator: Prof. Nicholas Thomas